The Atlanta Braves’ injury-plagued rotation completed a wildly successful series in Milwaukee to win their first series of the year, taking down the Brewers by a 1-0 final score thanks to the efforts of a surprising veteran. Here are three observations off the game:
Naturally, right? Braves general manager Frank Wren has a knack for finding waiver wire bargains to fill out his team’s pitching — just look at Eric O’Flaherty and David Carpenter — but the quick decision to sign Aaron Harang to replace veteran Freddy Garcia almost immediately after he failed to make Cleveland’s staff was not a planned offseason move to bolster bullpen depth. No, it was the result of Wren’s favorite phrase when it comes to these types of moves: "We’re always looking to improve the club."
From the beginning, Harang looked like an improvement over Garcia on paper, regardless of the franchise’s ties to the guy who pitched well in Game 4 of the NLDS last season. Harang had more in the tank, according to Wren and the Braves scouts, and he has a better track record in recent years.
Still, this was unexpected.
Harang, 35, took the mound on Wednesday far removed from the best stretch of his career (2005-07) and started cruising through the Brewers lineup. Sure, he was helped along by some standout defensive plays, namely from Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons, but a Milwaukee lineup featuring Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez should have eventually mustered some success. It didn’t, though. In fact, for six straight innings, it didn’t even muster a hit.
By the time Harang’s surprise no-hit bid was broken up by Logan Schafer in the seven inning, he had done his part to prove he’s still capable of getting hitters out at the major league level, if only for one start. He finished with 6 2/3 shutout innings pitched after allowing just two hits and striking out three batters.
"(Harang) made my job easy. He made pitches all day," catcher Gerald Laird said. "He hit his spots. … You could after the first inning and a half, he had his good stuff today."
Added Gonzalez on Harang’s effort versus Milwaukee: "Pretty good lineup. Better than pretty good, really. I saw him (sparingly before signing him) — and you see him do that. I didn’t realize he could still crank up to 91, I think he hit 92 once maybe. But good for us."
Harang’s performance added further credence to the notion that the Braves can withstand the early storm until reinforcements — Mike Minor, Ervin Santana and Gavin Floyd — arrive over the next few weeks. In fact, throwing in Harang’s line along with what 23-year-olds Julio Teheran and Alex Wood were able to do up in Milwaukee, the Braves’ starters are off to a better start this season than they were last season with Minor, Tim Hudson and Kris Medlen:
Mind the odds on Harang’s first start and expect some sort of regression over his next few outings — what, is he going to consistently toss seven-inning shutouts and contend for the Cy Young? — but for a guy vying for a full-time spot in this Atlanta rotation once it gets healthy, this was an excellent first step.
It must be pointed out: Harang’s scoreless bid was put to the test in the seventh inning, as he allowed the game’s first hit to the leadoff hitter, following a few minutes later by an Aramis Ramirez single that put runners on the corners with one out. Nursing that 1-0 lead, it was a tricky situation for Harang, a place where the wheels of his six-inning joyride through Milwaukee’s order could have come right off and put the Braves right back below .500 to start the year.
But a pop-up by Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy to second baseman Dan Uggla swung the odds back in Atlanta’s favor, and reliever Luis Avilan came in to squash the threat by forcing a groundout to third. Just like that, the Braves held onto their one-run lead and, following two more strong outings from Carpenter and Craig Kimbrel, the team is now on its way out of Milwaukee with a 1.33 collective ERA.
"The bullpen got me out of that jam," Harang said. "Slammed the door."
The bullpen allowed just one run in 6 2/3 innings during the series, including two shut-it-all-down appearances from closer Craig Kimbrel (two innings, zero hits, four strikeouts), who earned his first two saves of the season. Carpenter allowed an insurance run on Monday, but he bounced back with a solid appearance during Wednesday’s eighth inning. Ian Thomas and Gus Schlosser impressed in their debuts and, as previously mentioned, Luis Avilan’s continues to strand runners. Three games into the season, the Braves’ late-game strength is still just that.
(Also of note: The Braves’ bullpen will receive a new right-hander in 26-year-old Pedro Beato, who went to spring training with the Cincinnati Reds. Beato made 10 appearances for the World Series champion Boston Red Sox last season, and he holds onto a career 4.55 ERA. He will immediately join the 25-man roster and be available for the Washington Nationals series.)
Dan Uggla’s strong outing in the second game of the season magnified the scrutiny on the Braves’ center fielder, who went hitless in his first eight plate appearances of the year entering Wednesday. That may sound unfair, given the ridiculously small sample size, but this is the stage B.J. Upton set for himself following a disappointing season in 2013, his first in Atlanta. After claiming offseason tweaks to his swing and making a fresh start, starting off the season hitless with four strikeouts does not inspire much confidence.
And even following the first hit of his 2014 campaign, Upton is still striking out in 50 percent of his plate appearances — it’s going to take a complete turnaround to relieve the building pressure on the $75-million man; one hit and six strikeouts, even in the first series of many to come, isn’t going to cut it. (Relevant question of interest: How long does the elder Upton stay in the No. 2 hole?)
All the same, heading into an off day, a hit is a hit and confidence is confidence. The even more impressive aspect of Upton’s day was that, once he got on-base, Upton immediately "attacked" on the basepaths. He put himself in scoring position with his first stolen base of the season (it was the first opportunity he’s had to show off the wheels), and that’s a positive sign for a guy that is too fast to finish his second straight season with 12 steals.
If he’s going to be in the 2-hole against the Nationals, he’ll need to be better in series No. 2.